Saturday, May 15, 2010

Post From Portsmouth

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is one of those nicely-surviving old towns that you always mean to visit and spend a few days touring but usually don't. Lots of the old town stands as original buildings befitting one of our northern-most seaports. Some years ago when I was doing some work in New Hampshire, Eileen and I visited a large restored area called Strawbery Banke, accent on the peculiarities of spelling, a la shoppe. It was fun and perhaps even better than going to its more famous relative, Williamsburg, where we will be next weekend (and are unlikely to spend any time touring the tourist area).

I did drive through downtown today and enjoyed an early season farmers' market even if they ran out of lobster rolls by the time I arrived, so I had to have one at Bob's, the stand amidst the outlets across the bridge in Kittery, Maine. My raison de visite was the annual convention of the Horatio Alger Society, of which I have in my declining years become a more regular attendee. As with other such groups, the average age of members is rising and the number in attendance falling in direct proportion.

I've belonged to the society longer than almost all active members but have been an irregular attendee at the conventions owing to my travel schedule and conflicts. I enjoy knowing a number of the members all of whom I never would have known through any other likely way of meeting. Ive not hosted the convention--usually when I actually volunteer to do that it means I will somehow leave the group and be unable to deliver, sometimes causing hard feelings: I couldn't host the National Conference of Appellate Court Clerks because I changed jobs and some people took umbrage. I will try to do it one of these years, though, or risk being the oldest member who hasn't done it.

If you like book collecting, the convention is fun. I like late 19th century juvenile literature because of the Americana it conjures up for me. In an era without tv or movies or radio or Ipods, children read Alger and Oliver Optic and Henty and J. T. Trowbridge and Edward S. Ellis (the last two were American frontier adventure writers). We know that Lincoln enjoyed the rough humor of Artemus Ward. I find it enjoyable to be with people who know an immense amount about things like the third states of first editions, or the broken type on page 46 of another.

Alger wrote mostly in New York City and conveys a very definite picture of the metropolis in the 1870s and 1880s. He had limited ability at setting a plot--basically, he had one which he repeated about 100 times. But his descriptions of New York settings are worth knowing and his values are fine, as appropriate for us as for the Gilded Age inhabitants for whom he wrote.

It seems he gave most of his earnings to good causes such as the Newsboys Lodging House, and it may have been in the form of penance for this quietly defrocked Unitarian minister, who was thrown out of his pulpiy on Cape Cod for undisclosed reasons that are familiar to us as regards clergymen today. He also contributed to the American popular literature in yet another way: his assistant Edward Stratemyer finished six of his novels and them proceeded to invent, write, and eventually oversee a factory-like operation -- the Stratemyer Syndicate -- that produced Tom Swift, the BobbseyTwins, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and several other series for children.

The Society established an official repository for a fine collection of Alger at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, which isnt too far from O'Hare Airport. The retired librarian at NIU now lives in Durham, New Hampshire, and hosted this convention. The high point for me was returning to Newick's restaurant on Dover Point, where you can get the finest fried clams in the world, or at least the only ones I will deign to enjoy, on a level with Faidley's crabcakes in Lexington Market, Baltimore.

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